Studies in Ancient Mesopotamian Witchcraft Beliefs: Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals, vol. I

Lead Research Organisation: School of Oriental & African Studies
Department Name: Lang an Cultures of Near and Middle East


Witchcraft was believed to be one of the possible causes of serious illness throughout all periods of ancient Mesopotamian history. While we know little about witchcraft beliefs in 3rd mill. Mesopotamia, a large corpus of anti-witchcraft rituals and prescriptions for the preparation and application of relevant drugs provides a wealth of information on this phenomenon in 2nd and 1st mill. Babylonia and Assyria. For all we know, witchcraft beliefs and witchcraft accusations never became a factor that dominated whole segments of Babylonian or Assyrian society as this is attested e.g. for certain regions and periods of early Modern Europe, but Babylonian and Assyrian healing experts, most importantly the ashipu 'exorcist', regarded witchcraft as one of the three basic etiological diagnoses of illnesses whose symptoms and general seriousness demanded a counter-intuitive, out-of-the-ordinary (yet culturally accepted) diagnosis. The other two main diagnostic etiologies besides witchcraft, where the source of the evil that has befallen is sought outside the patient himself and ascribed to fellow humans, were (a) the transgression of a taboo by the patient himself or by one of his relatives and (b) ghosts or demons that had attacked the patient; all three concepts are closely intertwined with the idea of the anger of the (personal protective) gods. While witchcraft and the transgression of a taboo were regarded by the ancient experts as two complementary diagnoses with their pertinent text groups, there are also connections between witchcraft- and ghost-induced illnesses: the witch could be accused of having sent demons or ghosts against the patient, the evocation of a ghost could be used in the defensive anti-witchcraft ritual etc.
Witchcraft accusations would arise from conflicts within well-defined social groups whose inner relations were characterized by uncertainty and competition (e.g. different branches of families or the royal court). The stereotype of the witch, as it is known from the relevant incantations, is primarily female and all attested witchcraft accusations against concrete persons are directed against women. In anti-witchcraft rituals the female stereotype of the witch is complemented by the primarily male stereotype of the adversary in court, the personal enemy who, according to the imaginations attested in the rituals, has or has had performed witchcraft and thus has won the upper hand over the client of the ritual. Within war rituals also foreign enemies of the king could be accused of having performed witchcraft.
On the whole cases of witchcraft accusations against concrete persons within a non-ritualistic, (potentially) legal context seem to have been far from common. Usually the suspicion that a certain illness or a series of misfortunes was witchcraft-induced did not lead to a lawsuit, but was dealt with on a ritualistic level. Consequently our main source of information on Mesopotamian witchcraft beliefs are not case files of lawsuits against alleged witches, but come from the extensive corpus of Babylonian 'magical and medical' texts which reflect the practice and education of the professional healing experts in 2nd and 1st mill. Mesopotamia.
The Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-Witchcraft Rituals will provide a comprehensive critical edition of those therapeutic texts whose main purpose is to cure conditions that have been diagnosed as witch-craft-induced and (or) to immunize the client against future threats from witchcraft. The 'corpus' of these texts includes concise prescriptions for the preparation and application of drugs ('medical' texts) as well as ceremonial rituals, which prescribe the recitation of one or more incantations and prayers ('magical' rituals). The Corpus will include an introduction that gives the necessary background information to the texts and discusses various problems that arise from the reconstruction of this group of babylonian theraputic rituals.


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